The Ethiopian duo of Tirfi Tsegaye and Feyse Tadese together with the USA’s Shalane Flanagan aim to become part of an exclusive distance running club at the 41st edition of the BMW Berlin Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, on Sunday (28).
The trio aim to go under 2:20 for the marathon, a landmark achieved by 18 women so far in history.
Five have done so in Berlin with Kenya’s Florence Kiplagat the last to succeed in that attempt with her time of 2:19:44 in 2011. The German capital’s course record of 2:19:12 has remained in the possession of Japan’s 2004 Olympic marathon champion Mizuki Noguchi since 2005.
Tsegaye lives in Addis Ababa but hails from Oromia, one of the most fertile sources of Ethiopian running talent, including Kenenise Bekele. The winner of the Paris title two years ago, Dubai last year and Tokyo this February is very much aware of that heritage.
“I’m proud to come from Oromia and to have grown up in the capital of Arsi. I know all about our running tradition and want to represent that here on the streets of Berlin,” she said on Thursday at the women's press conference.
To that effect, she and training partner but rival on Sunday Feyse Tadese will be aiming to join the three Ethiopian women who are already members of the sub-2:20 club, headed by Olympic champion Tiki Gelana with her 2:18:58.
Tadese will be the fastest woman in the field, thanks to her 2:21:06 time when winning in Paris last year.
Tsegaye and Tadese will leave friendship behind once on the start line, but, according to the former, the subject was never raised in their Addis training base.
“We never discussed who might be strongest," said Tsegaye. "Training is about helping each other, then comes the race on Sunday. I know my preparation has gone well and I feel I have a strong chance on improving my best of 2:21:19 when I finished second in Berlin two years ago."
Flanagan arrived in Berlin last Friday with her mission clearly defined: breaking the US record of 2:19:36 set by Deena Kastor in London in 2006.
The US record-holder at 10,000m paid the price for a fast early pace in Boston in April, but set a personal best in her home town of 2:22:02 for seventh place.
Paying attention to detail, such as course variations and using landmarks as guides, is part of her meticulous approach.
“Every athlete is different but I like to go over a course and get to know it. We’ve had a guide take us around, note where the corners are, where the crowds are biggest. I can use that, imagining that I can draw on their energy when it gets tough.”
Tough it will get, as Flanagan readily acknowledges.
Contemplating a consistent pace of 5:19 per mile to break 2:20 is a daunting prospect, especially for the latter stages. Part of her motivation is a desire to create landmarks in what has been a distinguished career, highlighted so far by a 2008 Olympic 10,000m bronze medal.
“I feel strongly that I want to run well in the marathon as part of a legacy, to show what I have done in my running career. Growing up in Boston, I would watch the marathon and wonder how the elite women could run so fast, since my mile time as a girl was slower than their mile splits for the entire race.”
The marathon on Sunday could provide a surprise package in the shape of Ethiopia’s Tadelech Bekele.
Already well known in Berlin, having won the city’s half marathon in late March, her time of 1:10:05 didn’t make too many international headlines but what served more notice of her potential was her winning performance in the Berlin 10km last October.
Bekele’s time of 30:38 was the seventh fastest in history. She ventures into the unknown in the marathon, but has some solid building blocks in place for a distinguished future.
All the contenders come to Berlin in search of speed, attracted by the course’s reputation for record-breaking runs at this time of year.
Japan’s Kayoko Fukushi, a marathon bronze medallist at the 2013 World Championships, gave a succinct response to why she chose the German capital for an attempt on her personal best of 2:24:21, set when finishing second in Osaka last year.
“I know the three Japanese women who have broken 2:20 here, Mizuki Noguchi, Naoko Takahashi and Yoko Shibui. They didn’t give me special tips, just said, it’s a fast course, enjoy the atmosphere and have a good trip.”
Sentiments which are likely to be shared by more than 40,000 runners of all abilities and ages who will line up on the Avenue of June 17 in the heart of Berlin’s Tiergarten park on Sunday morning.
Organisers for the IAAF
Women's elite field (with personal best times):
Feyse Tadese (ETH) 2:21:06
Tirfi Tsegaye (ETH) 2:21:19
Shalane Flanagan (USA) 2:22:02
Abebech Afework (KEN) 2:23:59
Kayoko Fukushi (JPN) 2:24:21
Margarita Plaksina (RUS) 2:27:07
Anna Hahner (GER) 2:27:55
Ines Melchor (PER) 2:28:54
Adriana da Silva (BRA) 2:29:17
Rene Kalmer (RSA) 2:29:59
Michele das Chagas (BRA) 2:35:09
Tadelech Bekele (ETH) debut